By Dev Nadkarni
There is little doubt that English it is that linguistically binds this country together, much as the anti-English lobby would want to disagree. Even the Maharashtra government has decided to introduce the language in the lowest classes in non-English schools and is running intensive English courses for teachers. English is the language of technology, is the government’s sudden realisation, and students shouldn’t be disadvantaged by the lack of its knowledge.
The government is right. You ignore a language that adds thousands of new words –a whole lot of them technical– to its dictionaries every year at your own peril. I’m glad the government is being practical in accepting (though not officially) English as an Indian language and steering clear of jingoistic reasoning against the instruction of English. It’s not hard to see for anyone who’s been about town that the “Queen’s language” has taken on die-hard Desi hues and is as much Indian as pappadum and pav bhaji. Besides, India’s stake in the English language is steadily growing, what with more than a thousand words of Indian origin in the Oxford dictionary.
Considering that the principal function of language is to get a message across with a fair amount of accuracy in a given milieu, Indian English, Hinglish and their various doses in other Indian languages fits the bill extremely well –and colourfully so. Locally flavoured malapropisms may come in the way of grasping a sentence quite often, but its great fun. I once overheard somewhere, “That boy has completely gone outline. If you don’t take care, he may even become a druggist.” Get it? Well, replace “outline” with “out of hand” and “druggist” with “drug addict”!
Such sparkling examples are to be seen and heard everywhere. In Chennai there is a cold storage shop that is called “Sizzlers Cold Storage” and in rural Tamil Nadu I have seen a huge billboard that advertises a hotel that has baths with attached rooms! When in a southern semi-urban “hotel”, which was not much more than a roadside café, I enquired if they had a chicken dish that was served boneless, the waiter replied, “No boneless saar, but we can give you less bones.” A restaurant in Mangalore describes itself as a “Scandinavian style restaurant serving Moghlai, Chinese, Punjabi and Continental dishes.” Of course it serves the very very Manglorean idli sambar and dosas too!
Then there is that growing genre of delightful desi-English wisecracks that does the rounds of the Net, adding so much more Indian spice to life online. What do you call a ghost with syphilis? STD Bhooth! Stranded at an airport for several hours because of a delayed flight, one co-passenger said, “Now we know why traveling is called ‘suffer’ in Hindi.” And then there are the Mallu, Gujju, Tamil, Bong and Maharashtrian jokes that we have all heard. Where would all these jokes be if it weren’t for Indian English?
One of the few pleasures of driving on Indian roads is reading the rich variety of homegrown graffiti scrawled on the back of vehicles, particularly trucks. Those decrepit, hunky, slow-moving smoke machines may often ply without taillights and even licence plates; but you’ll scarcely find one without graffiti on their backs. Nothing peppers long distance driving like the verbal and graphical gems that adorn the backs of vehicles. The slogans range from stark profanities to words with deep philosophical import.
Probably the most enduring of slogans on Indian trucks is the one comprising those three almost mandatory words “Horn OK Please”. You’ll find them on the backs of trucks and light commercial vehicles across the length and breadth of the country. What on earth do those words mean? I, for one, have been confounded all my life. A couple of years ago I posted a topic on ‘Horn OK Please’ on a forum on one the popular India-centric websites. The response was tremendous but no two explanations tallied. Horn OK Please is like the enigma of Mona Lisa’s celebrated smile –it remains one of the great mysteries of all time. Answers anybody?
The other class of vehicular graffiti varies from using plebeian ‘Sher-Shayari’ like “Buri Nazar Wale Tera Mooh Kala” and “Amiron Ki Zindagi Biscuit Aur Cake Mein; Driver Ki Zindagi Steering Aur Brake Mein” to simply stating ownership like “Pappu Te Piddi Di Gaddi” or counting blessings like “Kaka Kaki Cha Ashirwad”. Still others have humbling fatalisms like “Jaane Waala Kya Le Jaayega?” and purely instructional ones like “Horn And Wait For Side” or “Use Dipper At Night”. Then there is the variety that strings together the names of all family members!
For long have governments used truck backs to successfully convey the flavour of their regimes. We’ve had the 20-point programme during the infamous Emergency; “Hum Do Hamare Do”, which was amended to “Hum Do Hamara Ek”, when population control came tops on the agenda and “Grow more trees” when it was important to save the environment. The back of a truck sure is very effective media in getting messages across –the government knows that.
The current flavour of the season rides the AIDS wave. “Condom Kab Kab? Yown Sambandh Jab Jab!” exhorts us all to use condoms on every conceivable occasion. In fact, “Condom Kab Kab…” is really threatening the mysterious “Horn OK Please” in the visibility stakes. Say, are we getting any closer to solving the “Horn…” mystery? Horns and condoms –there is a tenuous link somewhere, isn’t there?
By Dev Nadkarni
In a Mumbai suburb, there’s a narrow, low-slung, subway built ages ago during colonial times that lets cars and buses cross the overhead railway lines. Every rainy season, the subway collects enough rainwater and sewage to turn into a reeking, four-foot-deep cesspool that lasts the whole monsoon. The authorities, because they have found absolutely no way to drain the filthy water, actually build a ramp over the pool to let cars and smaller vehicles pass with dangerously low headroom. This wonderful marvel of engineering deserves a place in the record books as perhaps the only subway in the world with a built-in flyover!
This subway, popularly known as the Milan Subway, is a superb instance of the amazing paradoxes and contradictions that plague India. A nation that puts satellites in space, all in a day’s work as it were, does not have a solution to a simple flooding problem that continues to inconvenience thousands of Mumbaiites throughout the monsoon season for over five decades. Look anywhere and there’s a flyover-in-a-subway kind of absurd paradox that stares you in the face: One thousand four hundred languages and dialects –yet among the largest illiteracy quotients in the world. Despite this widespread illiteracy, we have the highest number of graduates in the world but the lowest number of graduate lawmakers in our governments!
The world’s second most populous nation cannot produce a single medal hope in international sporting events. An Olympic bronze is much cause of celebration. A nation that prides itself as one of less than ten that produces its own modern cars –thanks to the Indica—also produces a smoky, polluting, door less monstrosity called the six-seater. And it allows this ancient-looking, three-wheeled anachronism to ply the roads at the turn of the millennium, when it also enforces stringent pollution control norms across the country!
The depressing paradoxes continue. India has more dollar millionaires than most countries outside the USA, yet more than 70 percent of her citizens have no access to toilets and a slightly lower percentage has no access to piped drinking water. We have the largest number of scientists in the world, yet an unscientific temper that has not changed in a millennium. We still have the highest rates of female foeticide and use the latest technologies to spot unborn girls and prevent their birth.
The pride we take in our glorious, five-thousand-year-old continuously living civilisation that we say taught the rest of the world so much, does not help in improving our position in the global corruption stakes. We rank 71st in a list of 91 countries. There’s so much more: more publications than any other country despite such low literacy; lowest computer penetration despite the highest number of software engineers; the greatest number of poor despite being the sixth largest economy in the world; A nuclear and space power that cannot provide water supply and sanitation to more than half its citizens.
This is not just a statistical nightmare. It’s as real as a hellhole can get.